Posts Tagged ‘vegetarianism’

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Vegetarian vacation: the verdict

March 6, 2012

So here we are in March, and after a month of almost-vegetarianism, Senor and I have returned from our holiday from eating animals.

The experience of avoiding meat brought a few surprises, a few hiccups – you may recall my VegFeb fail on day one! – and some interesting insights into our food culture and my own cooking. So, in the tradition of our primary school reports of What I Did On My Holiday, here are some things we learned from our vacation in Vegoland.

1. I didn’t miss eating meat at all.

Not once. Never. This came as a huge surprise to both me and Senor, as of the two of us I have tended to be the most enthusiastic meat eater in the past (we’re always the ones that the waiter gets wrong when he brings a big rare steak and a piece of fish to the table – have you noticed how waiters tend to give meat to men as a matter of course??).

But, despite my fears that I would have at least one or two cravings for a juicy piece of red meat, it was in fact seafood I thought of most. And then only in the most passing way. Now, that said, in the name of conviviality we did eat animal flesh a few times at the houses of friends – a few mussels and pieces of fish, a couple of spoonfuls of chicken, and one mouthful of an incredible beef-rib rendang cooked by our friend Ricky Ricardo. There was also one restaurant meal for each of us where meat dishes were part of the deal. So we clearly did not actually go off meat for an entire month, and vegetarians will rightly pooh-pooh the whole experiment on that basis.

But that said, never once did I wish I had meat of any kind on my plate, including the night we dined at Porteno, a fantastic Sydney restaurant that most punters think only serves meat. But they have the best vegetarian menu I have seen in a restaurant, and I highly recommend it. Senor did sit very sadly by as a dish of incredible looking suckling pork & crackling wafted past him, but I had no desire at all to eat it. As well, despite my earlier decision that anchovies were to stay on the menu, I only ate them once and found it very easy to leave them out of everything after that.

2. I have never thought so much about food

Any regular visitor to this blog will have discerned that I am, if not fanatical about food, then pretty damn obsessed. I am the kind of person who wakes up in the morning thinking about what to cook for dinner – it’s utterly central to my life. But despite this, I found the need to actually think about nutrition – specifically, about where my protein was coming from – a little dreary. We ate fantastically well most of the time, but I did find it a teeny bit boring to have to account each day for protein, and a teeny bit repetitive to keep turning to tofu or eggs when the variety of protein available from an omnivorous diet is so much greater – you get tofu, eggs, dairy and all the seafood, chicken, red meat and pork as well. A proper vegetarian will tell you the accounting for protein becomes unconscious pretty quickly I think, but there was one day in the month where I found myself feeling a little out of sorts physically, and when I thought about it I realised we had eaten no protein that day. After that it became a much more conscious task – and when travelling, a bit of an annoyance (see next par).

3. Our culture still resists vegetarianism

We ate out quite a lot during February, for one reason and another. Many times presented no problem at all – such as at Porteno, as mentioned above, and when I ate the most incredible “Soft white polenta with Mossvale mushrooms, morel powder, truffled pecorino” among other things at the fabulous Diece e Mezzo in Canberra.

But these two restaurants are pretty high end, and places where the chefs clearly take an interest in making vegetarian food that is as complex and sumptuous than the meat dishes, if not more so. I think at such restaurants, the vegetarian options are often the pick of the menu because the chefs take pride in lifting their game on veg stuff. But at the cafe end of the market, you’re often pretty screwed. Vegetarian food as presented in cafes and many restaurants seems limited to stodge and cheese – risottos, pasta dishes with cheese, or a green salad. Or, there’s one veg option and every single cafe does it. I got tired – within about a week – of rocket salad with roast pumpkin, pine nuts and feta. It’s a shame, because I used to love that. But not three times in a week.

The other thing is that mid-priced cafes and restaurants still seem to view vegetarians as annoyances, and make almost no attempt to include protein in veg-based dishes. The attitude seems to be that you can go without it for one meal, which is completely fine – but if you’re travelling, as we were to Perth for four days, this means you can go days without having any protein included in a single dish. So you order lots of side dishes instead. All of this was perfectly fine for us, because it was a temporary thing, but jeez I’d get sick of it if I were permanently veg. No wonder the vegetarians I know eat at home almost always. As for being vegan and having a social life – I don’t know how they do it. I would be depressed and lonely – and hungry.

3. I am such a whitey.

One thing that really surprised me and that I’m a little shamefaced to admit, is how much I unconsciously plan the structure of meals with meat in mind. That is, the meals I tend to cook most of involve The Meat – and then The Rest. If you think about cooking roast chicken, lamb shanks, poached salmon and so on, those meals always have just as much vegetable content as meat, but the mental and emotional focus is on the protein, with the other things lovely accompaniments.

Our friend Silas has put his finger on this with one of his many witty aphorisms – when a couple cooks a meal together for other people, he says, it’s invariably the case that “The Protein Gets the Praise”. Our whitey culture – even with a big whack of Mediterranean influence – still focuses on meat as the centrepiece of a meal. And I was very surprised at how much I actually found myself searching for a focal point of a meal (like a frittata, say) at the start of our month. By the end I had almost let go of the tendency, but it was startling to realise how much the structure of a meal matters to me.

Of course almost all non-Anglo cultures don’t have this preoccupation – shared dishes are the norm in Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern and even Mediterranean meals – and I wonder how much this has evolved because many of these cuisines come from countries where poverty has been widespread and meat scarcely affordable. This little discovery of mine is obviously no big deal, but I kind of got a kick out of understanding that I even had this bias in the first place. That’s one of the things I love about cooking – finding out stuff about one’s culture and oneself.

4. Texture matters

I have always been a sucker for big textural variety in foods, but when you have no meat you really notice it, I reckon. A former vego friend of mine who now eats meat a few times a week said he realised that he had gone for years without ever using a knife – that virtually all their meals had been eaten from a bowl, with a fork.

That comment goes to the heart of a particular horror of mine – bowls of slop. When we were busy during February, and the fridge was full of bits of leftovers, we found ourselves on more than one occasion tipping all the leftover bits into a bowl. It was perfectly flavoursome, and perfectly nutritious. But there remained for me this sad glumness to the look, to the feeling, of the meal. Bowls of slop are not good for the spirit, no matter how nourishing to the body.

So during February, I found that nuts mattered to me more than ever, and I made new friends with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. And the squeaky salty delight of smoky, pan-fried haloumi was something I looked forward to a few times a week. Crunch, squeak and crispness in a mouthful of softness – divine.

5. So near, and yet so far: why I’m staying omnivorous

At the outset we said we would not refuse meat if it felt impolite to do so in the company of others, and so there were at least a couple of times of sharing plates in restaurants – such as my night out with lovely writer friends at Yen for Viet or Senor’s at an amazingly generous friend’s 50th birthday party at Tetsuya’s – when we were very glad not to be permanent vegetarians. Another time we met friends at the beach and they brought sushi, and other times our friends cooked magnificent meals at their homes which were seafood or meat-based.

If we had asked for vegetarian options to be included, or declined to eat any of this, not a single person would have been annoyed with us. We have extremely pro-vegetarian friends, many of whom have spent long periods as vegos themselves.

But we ourselves would have felt the distancing effect of it. In a culture where meat is so much a part of everyday life, especially in the sharing of food between friends and family, I just don’t have it in me to separate myself from my peers in the way that true vegetarianism requires. Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, articulates a similar feeling when he tries out vegetarianism for a little while.

“What troubles me is the subtle way it alienates me from other people and, odd as this may sound, from a whole dimension of human experience. Other people now have to accommodate me, and I find this uncomfortable. My new dietary restriction thows a bit of a wrench into the basic host-guest relationship. As a guest, if I neglect to tell my host in advance that I don’t eat meat, she feels bad, and if I do tell her, she’ll make something special for me, in which case I’ll feel bad. On this matter I’m inclined to agree with the French, who gaze upon any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.” 

I don’t think it’s bad manners to be vegetarian at all – in fact I have nothing but respect for anyone who is, especially on ethical grounds.

But speaking purely personally, I just don’t feel comfortable asking other people to accommodate my diet in their homes, or in our shared meals. And so – while we will continue to eat lots of veg food, and I am convinced, much less meat from now on – we’ll be staying omnivorous.

But that said ….

5. Some of the best things in life are vegetarian

We ate some of the best meals I’ve ever cooked during our VegFeb. These included an Indian feast for six prompted by my long-awaited purchase of this wonderful Madhur Jaffrey book; a lovely Mediterranean lunch for seven people and many, many meals just for the two of us – including Senor’s further adventures with fermented blackbeans, tofu and his beloved Fuchsia Dunlop via her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, and my own homage to the Diece e Mezzo dinner with a mushroom ragu with creamy polenta eaten on the couch in front of the telly last Friday night. That might be my new favourite comfort food of all.

I finish this long ramble with a recipe for a Fraud’s Frittata. I have always been crap at frittatas, because I have always managed to burn them on the bottom before they’re cooked on the top. Today, in a fantastic vegetarian cooking class for four given at my house by the wonderful nutritionist and teacher Kathryn Elliott (a new blog post on that soon!) I learned that the reason for my failed frittatas is, as usual, my impatience and too high a heat.  Kathryn’s beetroot and dill frittata was just amazing, cooked the proper way, in and from the frying pan.

But at one lunch for friends during February I did make this fraudulent frittata, basically treating it as a quiche,  baking it in the oven and finishing under the grill. I did heat the pyrex dish in the oven first, to make sure the mix hit the dish hot. As you can see from the look of it, this frittata was a big, boofy thing full of flavour and punch.

Roasted Vegetable Fraud’s frittata – serves 8

  • Olive oil
  • 1 red onion, cut into 8 segments
  • 2 baby or 1 medium fennel bulbs, sliced
  • 2 small potatoes, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup silverbeet, stems finely chopped & leaves roughly chopped
  • ½ cup kalamata olives, roughly chopped
  • 8 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 tablespoons thick yoghurt
  • ½ cup marinated feta cubes, drained

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees C
  2. Drizzle the onion segments and potato and fennel slices in olive oil and roast on baking sheets for about 20 mins or until well browned.
  3. Meanwhile, gently fry silverbeet stems in a little olive oil until soft, then add leaves and fry until wilted.
  4. Set potato slices aside to cool.
  5. In a bowl mix roasted onion, fennel and chopped olives with spinach and leave to cool.
  6. Lightly grease a pyrex or ceramic pie dish with oil and heat in the oven for a few minutes.
  7. Remove dish from oven and scatter half the potato slices over the hot dish.
  8. Add beaten eggs and yoghurt to cooled vegetable and olives, stir to combine well, then pour into hot pie dish.
  9. Push remaining potato slices into the egg and vegetable mix, top with feta and bake in oven for 20 minutes or until egg is just starting to set.
  10. Place under hot grill for 5 minutes or until top is puffed and golden, then remove and set aside to rest for a few moments. Serve immediately or at room temperature, cut into wedges.

Love to hear more about your own adventures in vegetarianism, how you keep it up, or how and why you went back to meat.

And I promise the next post will be short and sweet!

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Fish out of water

January 27, 2012

Our (almost) vegetarian adventure

Some of you already know about the culinary experiment I am forcing on Senor for February – the two of us are going veg for a month.

Last year it was Febfast, giving up the booze, which was a chore, to say the least. I expect to enjoy this February a whole lot more than last, for I have no doubt we will be eating very well indeed.

We’re trying out a version of vegetarianism for a few reasons, apart from my increasingly obvious lapsed-Catholic attachment to some annual ritual festival of denial – any other ex-Catholics out there with these weird lenten leanings?

First, I just want to see what it feels like to go without meat for a month, because I realised some time ago that I have never forgone meat (either red meat, or chicken, pork, bacon, chorizo, fish, seafood etc) for even one week, let alone a month. And even though I feel that we have cut down our meat consumption substantially, I took note of everything we ate while away last week – a holiday filled with delicious salads and veg dishes provided by excellent cooks – and realised that even then, not a day went by without some bit of animal flesh – fish, or ham, or chicken. So actually, the only thing we’ve really cut down on is red meat.

Second, I am hoping it will help us shift a few kilos of the blubber that returned rather insistently over the latter quarter of the year. As I said to Senor, I’ve never known a fat vegetarian, my eyes glazing over and mouth watering with images of all the butter and cheese (and organic ghee kindly delivered to our door by our friend Guy the other day!!) that we will be chowing down on. And then Senor most unhelpfully pointed out that we do know a couple of portly vegos, which sort of ruined my fantasy of the kilos dropping daily with zero effort on our part at all. But I still will be interested to see how it affects weight and general health and feeling of zinginess, to substitute meat with other things.

Third, I am keen to see what kind of a reboot my cooking repertoire receives from this change in routine. When I’m busy I, like most of us I’m sure, tend to fall back on the usual contenders for the evening meal – but this will force me to try new things and extend the range a bit, I hope. As well, one of the things I’ve always believed is that to make interesting, really flavoursome  veg food requires more effort than a meat diet does. And now I’m a full-time student (starting a PhD in Creative Writing, eek) I will be financially less well off but have more time and flexibility. If there is ever a time to do this, it’s now – in summer when salads are inspiring, when one doesn’t crave rich, stodgy food as I do in winter, and early in my studies when I can retain the illusion I have plenty of time to do everything.

Finally, there will be the nice fuzzy glow of knowing we’ve spared the lives of a few critters, but I can’t pretend that this is really high on the list of reasons. While in recent years I have thought a lot about my love of meat, and eating it has caused me guilt and unease, I have recently come to a position of moral acceptance that it’s okay to eat animals that have been humanely raised and which have not been made to suffer unnecessarily (hence shopping at Feather and Bone, and proper free range eggs and chooks and all that jazz that you probably all do as well). We’ve cut down a lot on red meat, as I’ve said, and become much firmer in a commitment to real free range pork and chicken (I think conventionally raised lamb and beef, in this country, have better lives than they do in wholly grain-fed operations like those in the US, and have better lives here than our pigs and chickens do, even accounting for beef being finished on grain), but we also try now to only buy red meat from either F&B for that reason. I do welcome any commentary on this, by the way, because I am always keen to hear more about ethical meat production.

All that said, and in noting that we’re only going veg, not vegan, we’re doing this with a few caveats in place.

The first and most important for me is that, while we’re telling all our friends and family about this trial and some have already booked us in for veg meals with them, we won’t be refusing meat at someone’s house if it feels rude to do so. Given that this is an experiment rather than a life choice, I won’t be imposing our vego status on our friends. And to me, conviviality and respect for the person who offers you food is as ethically important as respect for the life of an animal, as the fabulous Tammi Jonas has written about so eloquently here.  So there is bound to be the odd evening we eat a bit of meat rather than reject someone’s hospitality, though we’ll try as much as possible to minimise the chances.

Second – and this has no ethical basis whatsoever – I can’t give up anchovies. I just can’t. I love those little salty bombs as much as bacon, which I know I really will miss, for a hit of flavour in everything from chickpea salads to lamb roasts to onion tarts to antipasto. I completely accept the hypocrisy of feeling warm and fuzzy about a cow but not a fish, no matter how small. I hope I have never claimed to be free of hypocrisy (one of my favourite lines on hypocrisy is this, from the philosopher and psychologist Jonathan Haidt: “Stop smirking. One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own.”  That came to me via Hal Herzog’s wonderful book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals).

So now, in honour of our beloved salty little fishy bombs, and in farewell to meat for a month, I offer you this recipe which includes anchovies. It’s a very slight adaptation of a Neil Perry recipe from Good Weekend some time ago, and it is excellent. He used blue eye trevalla but as there was none when I went to our local fish market I bought royal basa and it was good. That said, next time I would try harder to buy a more sustainable fish, given the bloody ethical minefield that seafood shopping entails (god it’s tiring, isn’t it?).

I added chickpeas and zucchini to this to make it a serious one-pan dinner of gorgeousness. I also used dried rather than fresh oregano (just a teaspoon). Highly recommended with or without those additions.

This will be the last fleshy recipe from me until March – but I hope to be posting at least a few updates of how we’re faring throughout vegetableFeb.

Neil Perry’s Roast blue-eye trevalla with fennel & olives

  • 1 bulb fennel, finely sliced
  • 1 red onion, finely sliced
  • 2 tablespoons oregano, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons thyme, chopped
  • 60 ml olive oil
  • 1 red capsicum, finely sliced
  • 4 tomatoes, chopped (NP peels and deseeds, but I am too lazy for that and almost never do it)
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and drained
  • 6 anchovies
  • handful of olives
  • 1 tsp chilli flakes
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 4 x blue eye trevalla fillets – we used basa, but any firm white fish fillet would work
  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (I forgot this but it mattered not)
  • Additions: 1 can or equiv cooked chickpeas; 2 small zucchinis, chopped into 3cm lengths
  1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees C.
  2. Toss fennel, onion, herbs, capsicum, tomato, capers, anchovies, olives, chilli flakes together in a roasting tin. Pour the wine in and roast for about half an hour, or until the vegetables are soft.
  3. Add the chickpeas and zucchini and return to oven for 20 minutes or so until zucchinis are just tender.
  4. Nestle the fish fillets into the mix, drizzle with a little more oil and return to the oven for about 10 minutes or until fish is just cooked.
  5. Remove tray from oven, leave to rest for about five minutes and then serve a fillet on each plate, topped with the vegetable mix, garnish with parsley and season.

Any of you ever done the vegetarian thing? I’m very interested to hear about it if you have, and if you still are, what kind of foods you missed when you first gave up meat – and if you went back to meat, what tipped your decision…